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Monday, May 25, 2009

Book vs Film: East of Eden vs. East of Eden



Plot: Two brothers, one “good” and one “bad,” vie for the affections of their father as well as a local girl. While the father will never be able to understand or connect to the bad son, the girl sees another side of him and comes to love him. This betrayal, in addition to the bad brother’s insistence on dredging up the family past, eventually shatters the psyche of the good brother.

Differences Between Book and Film: I saw the film version long before reading the novel so imagine my surprise when I discovered that Elia Kazan’s film is only an adaptation of about the last 100 of the novel’s 700 plus pages. The film is, however, very faithful to those last 100 pages, though it cuts out one of the novel’s best characters – the housekeeper, Lee – who adds an interesting, and perhaps problematically latent, element to the story.

For The Book: First and foremost, the prose by John Steinbeck is beautiful and the story, which follows two generations of brothers in the Trask family and juxtaposes it against the story of the Hamilton family (based on Steinbeck’s own family), is powerful and deeply complex, drawing on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The major female character of the novel, Kate, the wife of Adam and mother of Aron and Cal, is one of the most terrifying villains in fiction, a character without moral compass and entirely lacking in empathy for anyone. She’s an absolutely fascinating character, though considerably declawed in Kazan’s film.

For The Film: James Dean, James Dean, and James Dean. This was Dean’s film debut, the only film he lived to see released in theatres, and the first of two performances for which he was posthumously Oscar nominated. He simply is Cal, the defiant kid desperate for his father’s approval, jealous of his brother’s status in the family, and often acting as his own worst enemy. The film itself is far from perfect, but Dean’s performance makes it worth a look.

Winner: Book. The film is good and displays some solid work by those in front of and behind the camera, but I really love the book. The Grapes of Wrath may be Steinbeck's masterpiece, but for me East of Eden runs a fairly close second.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Jacqueline Outcast said...

East of Eden is an engrossing, engaging and enjoyable novel. The 1955 film? Not so much. As with most epics, East of Eden proves a tricky translation from page to screen. The book careens the reader through a multi-generational jumble of smalltown relationships and landscapes in early 20th century California. Unfortunately, the movie whittles a great, winding Cain and Abel-inspired story down to events occurring in the last couple of chapters. It would take me too long to list all the other ways the movie obliterates the Steinbeck novel. But I will sum up my major complaint in two words: James Dean. It's not that Dean is bad in the role of Cal (Cain). He is actually quite inspiring in many scenes. But the focus on Dean distracts and deflates the movie by diminishing other characters and themes that are so central to the saga and success of the book. For instance, I can't remember the name of the actor who played Aron. Is it because his acting was less memorable, or his physical presence less alluring? Perhaps. But I believe the real fault lies with director Elias Kazan. In de-emphasizing Aron, Kazan sacrificed both the intensity and complexity of an equally important character. And what happened to the character of Lee? That is a character whose intervention carries half the book, but he inesplicably disappears in the movie. This film is a casualty in Hollywood's sad history of hacking good prose up to fit into an okay picture.

Jacqueline Outcast said...

East of Eden is an engrossing, engaging and enjoyable novel. The 1955 film version? Not so much. As with most epics, East of Eden proves a tricky translation from page to screen. The book careens the reader through a multi-generational jumble of troubled relationships and lushly described landscapes in early 20th century California. Unfortunately, the movie whittles a great, winding Cain and Abel-inspired story down to a few events occurring in the last couple of chapters. It would take me too long to list all the other ways the movie obliterates the Steinbeck novel. But I will sum up my major complaint in two words: James Dean. It's not that Dean is bad in the role of Cal (Cain). He is actually quite inspiring in many scenes. But the focus on Dean distracts and deflates the movie by diminishing other characters and themes so central to the saga and success of the book. I can't even remember the name of the actor who played Aron (Abel). Is it because the actor's performance was less memorable, or his physical presence less alluring? Perhaps. But I believe the real fault lies with director Elias Kazan. In de-emphasizing Aron, Kazan sacrificed both the intensity and complexity of an equally important character. And what happened to the character of Lee, whose sage intervention carries half the book? Yet he inexplicably disappears in the movie. East of Eden the film is not the worst but it is a good example of a casualty in Hollywood movie-making, and its long, sad history of hacking fine prose up to fit into an okay picture.